Modern file systems associate the deletion of a file with the immediate release of storage, and file writes with the irrevocable change of file contents. We argue that this behavior is a relic of the past, when disk storage was a scarce resource. Today, large cheap disks make it possible for the file system to protect valuable data from accidental delete or overwrite. This paper describes the design, implementation, and performance of the Elephant file system, which automatically retains all important versions of user files. Users name previous file versions by combining a traditional pathname with a time when the desired version of a file or directory existed. Storage in Elephant is managed by the system using file-grain user-specified retention policies. This approach contrasts with checkpointing file systems such as Plan-9, AFS, and WAFL that periodically generate efficient checkpoints of entire file systems and thus restrict retention to be guided by a single policy for all files within that file system. Elephant is implemented as a new Virtual File System in the FreeBSD kernel.
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